The Letter Writer

( 7 )


Eleven-year-old Harriet Whitehead is an outsider in her own family. She feels accepted and important only when she is entrusted to write letters for her blind stepmother. Then Nat Turner, a slave preacher, arrives on her family’s plantation and Harriet befriends him, entranced by his gentle manner and eloquent sermons about an all-forgiving God. When Nat asks Harriet for a map of the county to help him spread the word, she draws it for him—wanting to be part of something important. But the map turns out to be the...

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The Letter Writer

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Eleven-year-old Harriet Whitehead is an outsider in her own family. She feels accepted and important only when she is entrusted to write letters for her blind stepmother. Then Nat Turner, a slave preacher, arrives on her family’s plantation and Harriet befriends him, entranced by his gentle manner and eloquent sermons about an all-forgiving God. When Nat asks Harriet for a map of the county to help him spread the word, she draws it for him—wanting to be part of something important. But the map turns out to be the missing piece that sets Nat’s secret plan in motion and makes Harriet an unwitting accomplice to the bloodiest slave uprising in U.S. history.

Award-winning historical novelist Ann Rinaldi has created a bold portrait of an ordinary young girl thrust in to a situation beyond her control.

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Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Eileen Kuhl
Rinaldi depicts a time of slavery, revolution, and divided loyalties through the eyes of eleven-year-old Harriet. Two intertwined plots tell of the uprising led by Nat Turner and the family story of the Whiteheads. In 1831, slave Nat Turner led a brutal uprising killing fifty-seven residents in Virginia. Rinaldi provides a detailed description of the antebellum South and the revolt from Harriet's first-person account and the letters she sends to her uncle in England. Harriet is fascinated by the charismatic young preacher Turner, and his influence contributes to her questioning her own religious beliefs and slavery. He persuades her to supply him with a map he needs, and she is horrified with the consequences. The book's secondary plot involves Harriet's lonely life in her family as the illegitimate daughter of her deceased father. She relies on the sympathy of her stepmother, the secure relationship she has with her slave, Violet, and the uncle she has never met in England. Fact and fiction intertwine in this involving story. Harriet emerges as a complicated and sympathetic figure. Teens will not be able relate to the circumstances, but they will connect with Harriet's indecision, regret, and growth. The novel does not try to explain Nat Turner's motivation but outlines the atmosphere and racist beliefs common in the South during this era. Some readers may have difficulty with the vivid descriptions of violence in this suspenseful novel. There are also some unrealistic but satisfying plot twists at the conclusion, and the amiable relationships between black and white do not seem credible for the setting. This title would be useful for a middle school historical fiction assignment tosupply an accessible picture of a crucial event in history. Reviewer: Eileen Kuhl
Children's Literature - Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger
Harriet knows she does not belong in her family. She shares a father with her stepbrother and stepsister, but her mother is a mystery no one will discuss. Her stepbrother is harsh with her and with the slaves that work their plantation. When he asks her to be a scribe for his blind mother and also share family information with an uncle who lives abroad, Harriet begins to feel she has a purpose. Then she meets the charismatic Nat Turner, a slave preacher who teaches of a loving, forgiving God—a relief compared to the revenge-seeking God described by her preacher brother. Harriet is so taken with Nat that she copies a map for him, little realizing how he will use it. When Nat sets his secret plan in motion, it unleashes a tragedy that is beyond Harriet's imagination. Rinaldi weaves her fictional characters into the story of Nat Turner and his slave uprising. The violence is sudden for readers as well as for the characters and provides a startling insight into life during this tragic episode. Reviewer: Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger
KLIATT - Janis Flint-Ferguson
Ann Rinaldi, well known for her historical fiction, has taken on the fascinating history of the Nat Turner Rebellion in Southhampton County, Virginia in August of 1831. Turner was "loaned" out to the Whitehead Plantation; a much sought-after slave laborer, he was trusted on the plantations where he worked. Rinaldi creates Harriet, the illegitimate daughter of the late plantation owner, who at 11 years old is given the task of writing the correspondence for Mother Whitehead, the plantation matron whose eyesight is failing. In that role she learns much about the workings of the family and the farm, while trying to stay out of the way of her half brother, Richard, a rigid, conservative minister. To practice her skills, she begins writing to her uncle, the acclaimed "black sheep" of the family. Harriet is befriended by Turner, or so she believes, and sees in him a "true" man of God. That, of course, is about to change as Turner leads 50 slaves in an uprising that changes the landscape of Harriet's life even as it takes the lives of the Whitehead family and neighbors. The uprising is particularly realistic in its violence and brutality, so caution is advised with younger readers. However, this is a fast-paced, compelling story about the attitudes of Southern plantation owners toward their slaves. Rinaldi is true to Turner and so ultimately the motivations for the uprising are as enigmatic as he was. Reviewer: Janis Flint-Ferguson
School Library Journal

Gr 6-9

When 11-year-old Harriet becomes the letter writer for Mother Whitehead, her blind stepmother, she also begins writing to her Uncle Andrew, an estranged "black sheep" of the family living in England, whose unconventional views on God, slavery, and family she discovers she shares. And when the slave preacher Nat Turner makes her believe "that God is forgiving and good" rather than "angry and ready to punish and send us to hell forever," she copies a map of Southampton County, VA, for him so that he can preach at neighboring plantations. The full weight of this last choice becomes clear on August 22, 1831. Rinaldi spares no one the brutal trauma of Nat Turner's slave rebellion; though she escapes, Harriet envisions her family members' graphic deaths. Neither does the author gloss over the fundamental barbarism of slavery, of murder in the name of maintaining "control" of one's "property," which lead to Turner's and his followers' wrath. Significantly, in the death of Margaret Whitehead, Rinaldi borrows from William Styron's controversial The Confessions of Nat Turner (Random, 1968), unnecessarily sexualizing the motive for the one murder Turner committed himself. Ultimately, however, Rinaldi depicts a world full of historical detail, one without clear answers, and leaves her readers to consider the controversial Turner and the impact of murder.-Bethany Isaacson, Wheaton Regional Library, Silver Spring, MD

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547327853
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/24/2010
  • Pages: 217
  • Sales rank: 1,461,016
  • Age range: 12 years
  • Lexile: 730L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 4.10 (w) x 6.80 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

ANN RINALDI  is an award-winning author best known for her ability to bring history vividly to life. She lives in central New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt



Dear Uncle Andrew: My name is Harriet, and depending on how much you can abide my chatter, I am going to be writing to you a great deal over the next year or so. My brother, Richard, demands it, and when he demands something, the angels concur. He says you are a very intelligent man, and though Mother Whitehead says you are touched in the head, you suffer that malignancy no more than most of us in this family. At any rate, he says you are also an art dealer. And the engraving we have in our center hallway of Mary Wollstonecraft was given to Mother Whitehead by you many years ago. Good grief, I have been passing by it for years! I am eleven years old, love to ride horses and read books. My best friend is my "girl" Violet, who somehow came to be half white and almost part of the family. I don’t know how, but this family is so confused it is like Mother Whitehead’s crochet yarn after Piddles, the cat, gets finished fussing with it. Oh, I must go now, they are calling me for Sunday dinner, and if there is anything Richard hates it is one being late for prayers before meals.

Your servant, Harriet Whitehead


Violet was at the edge of the pond in water up to her knees, cutting the cattails. "Oh, look at this one, Miss Harriet," and she snipped it off expertly with a scissor. "This one’s a beauty." Her skirt was hitched up between her legs showing her light brown thighs. She didn’t wear ruffled pantalets like I did. Slaves didn’t wear pantalets.

I took the cattail in my hands with the three others. It was a good one. I could cut a sharp point and it would prove to make a good pen when dipped in some lampblack. I’d use it to write my next letter, I decided. Maybe this afternoon.

Neither of us paid mind to the rider approaching on the fat white horse until he was nearly on top of us.

"What are you doing there in that pond?" Richard demanded. "Getting cattails again? Violet, get out and put down your skirts. Harriet, give over those cattails."

He reached out his hand. I gave them over.

"Going to use these for writing, are you?" he asked.

"Yes," I answered.

"They’re known around as slave pens," he said. "Look on the back of any barn wall and you’ll see their scratchings. Or messages, made from cattails and lampblack. You know what lampblack does to your clothing, Harriet. And how Mama hates it. Yet you do persist. Why?"

"They’re more of a challenge to use," I answered.

He sighed deeply. "Haven’t you enough challenges in life? Violet, haven’t you anything better to do with your time?"

"It be the Sabbath, Massa Richard. I done went to church. An’ if’n I must say so, you did preach a fine sermon, yessuh." She used the special voice she always used with my brother, the subservient one with the humble tone.

"Such a fine sermon that you come home and raise your skirts in front of everybody, hey? You’re not a child anymore. How old are you now, Violet?"

She was untwisting her skirt and pulling it down. "Fourteen, suh."

"That’s right, I keep forgetting. You’re three years older than Harriet. Well, you keep acting like that and it’ll be time to marry you off."

"But suh, I be Miss Harriet’s girl. I been carin’ for her since she come to us. And I serve Miss Margaret, too, when she come home from that fancy school in Jerusalem. An’ I run and fetch for your mama. They all can’t do without me."

She was begging. And pompous Richard let her beg.

"At any rate, my sister has letters to write this afternoon. And not with cattails. So you go about your business, whatever it is. And if I catch you with your skirts hiked up again, they won’t come down until I’ve given your legs ten stripes. You hear?"
"Yessuh." Violet ran.


Copyright © 2008 by Ann Rinaldi

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 2, 2013

    I loved the entire series and loved them!  I bought the entire s

    I loved the entire series and loved them!  I bought the entire series.  A great read.  It will take you from the deep South , results of during and after the Civil war.  How the hate affected the South.  A page turner from book to book!  Loved each one!  

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2010

    Secrets That Should Not be told

    Harriet Whitehead is an eleven year old girl with a troubled life. Her dad was killed when she was little and that is all she knew about him. She is now living with her and her children on their plantain in Virginia. Harriet has an older brother who is the local minster. He is married to Pleasant and they have an infant son named William. Harriet has an older sister who is fifteen by the name of Margaret.

    When she is only eleven years old she her brothers asks her if she could write letters for his mother who is becoming blind. This is an important task and she accepts it. Harriet writes to her Uncle Andrew who lives in England and she tells him everything. She asks him for his opinion as well as listen to her. Violet and Owen are like siblings to her. Even though they are slaves she does not treat them that way at all. They play together and she even helps them with the chores. Nat Turner is the slave preacher. He does everything and even more than what he is expected to do. Nat does baptisms for people who are not as loyal to the church like the people from Richard's church. One day Nat asks Harriet for a map of the plantation. Harriet first asks Pleasant and Uncle Andrew about what she would do. She does not listen to them and she gives him the map any ways. Then all of a sudden fifty-five people are dead.

    This book is an extremely suspenseful book. The tone is calm and then all of a sudden you cannot put it down.

    Harriet is asked to do an important task of writing letters for her brother's mom and she accepts the task. She writes letters to the people who live around them and does whatever she needs her to do. Then she gives a map to Nat a local slave and then suddenly fifty five people die.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by Jennifer Rummel for

    Harriet knows her place in society. <BR/><BR/>She's the half-sister of the plantation owner. She does little jobs and writes letters for his mother. <BR/><BR/>She notices the differences in treatment of all people and has a hard time dealing with the injustice. When Nat Turner comes to work at her plantation, she finds herself drawn to him. His God seems quite different from her brother's. <BR/><BR/>When he asks for her help, she doesn't refuse him. What she doesn't realize is the part she might play in changing history. <BR/><BR/>This gripping tale imagines the story of the bloodiest uprising of slaves in American History.

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    Posted April 2, 2010

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    Posted December 24, 2011

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    Posted February 7, 2012

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    Posted March 22, 2011

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